Pleased by Nubi’s quick recuperation, the vet removed the splint.
‘What a clever lad. He’s broken all the rules,’ she said, scratching Nubi behind his ears and feeding him a handful of treats. ‘If it weren’t patently impossible, I’d swear he’s grown younger as well.’
Finn was about to joke about Jesse’s magic touch when he got a glimpse of Jesse’s face.
‘Let’s not bother cooking just for the two of us,’ Finn said as they left the surgery. Sarah had another evening class and Meg was on duty at the hospital. ‘There’s a place near the boatyards I think you’ll like. We’ll see if Matthew’s around. He can join us.’
‘What about Nubi? He’s not allowed in a restaurant, is he?’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Hairy Spider’s place?’ Matthew asked when they removed the scraper forcibly from his hand. ‘OK, why not? I suppose my ears can take it for once.’ He went to clean himself up.
‘Hairy Spider?’ Jesse asked.
‘That’s just our nickname for Siggy. The owner.’ Finn grinned but refused to elaborate.
Matthew left Daisy in the boathouse. ‘She’s used to it. Terrific deterrent. Nobody likes to tangle with a wolf. They’ve got no idea that she’s really a marshmallow, do they, sweetheart?’ he said, addressing the last to Daisy.
Finn was regarding Matthew with a strange glimmer in his eyes. ‘You’re looking even stronger than last time. You’ve put on some weight. That new treatment is working wonders.’
‘Yeah, well, it’s still early to speak of remission. But I’m hungry all the time. Mind you, I’m not complaining.’
‘I should hope not,’ Finn said, and left it at that. But Jesse noticed that Finn kept stealing sidelong glances at Matthew as they headed past the commercial boatyard into a warren of small shops and cobbled lanes crowded with street vendors.
Jesse could hear live music reeling them in like a good fisherman, slow and steady, as they turned into a sunny courtyard. Both Jesse and Nubi stopped in astonishment, Nubi’s nose quivering, Jesse’s flaring with equal delight. Every centimetre, every millimetre of ground except for a narrow paved walkway was covered with herbs, some that Jesse recognised and many that he didn’t. Scents dense enough to taste – to spread onto a piece of fresh bread. Slow hypnotic riffs swelled over them – a saxophone was playing hoarsely, achingly. The fine hairs on Jesse’s neck stirred.
The music died away as they approached the door. The restaurant was large and clean and plain, with white plastered walls, a flagged floor, and only a few well-chosen photos of music instruments – not musicians – for decoration. It looked as if they might be Finn’s work, for Jesse could hear the luminous black-and-white instruments begin to sing as soon as his eyes lit on them.
They took possession of a table near the front, where a drum kit and some music stands were set up. A bass waited on its side, a clarinet and trumpet on a chair, and a tenor sax in a stand, but there was no sign of the musicians. After a few minutes, a huge barrel of a man walked out of the kitchen carrying a tray – Siggy, Jesse guessed straightaway. He had a dark tangled beard shot with grey, eyebrows like black loofahs, and a head of kinky hair that charged below his shoulders, tied back with what seemed to be a pipe-cleaner. When he spied Finn and Matthew, he shoved the tray at a young waiter, barked ‘the three po-faced gits near the bar,’ and came rushing over to them, laughing raucously and shouting hello. Jesse understood why they called him a spider: his arms and legs freewheeled wildly as he moved, so that it looked as if he had eight limbs – or even twelve – instead of the usual contingent.
‘You’re going to lose customers if you keep on insulting them, Siggy,’ Finn said by way of greeting.
‘That’s why I’m the businessman an’ you’re the bleedin’ artist,’ bellowed Siggy in return. ‘You don’t understand a thing about runnin’ a good chop-house. The more you kick ’em in the cahones, the quicker they come back. Specially when I feed ’em so good.’ He raised his eyebrows at Nubi, then at Jesse, who stared at them in fascination. They had a life of their own.
‘Siggy, this is Jesse, who’s staying with us for a while, and his dog Nubi,’ Finn said.
‘Nubi, eh? Like that Egyptian bloke who carted away the dead?’ He chuckled when he saw a look of surprise cross Jesse’s face. ‘Big an’ fat an’ hairy I might be, but not dumb. No ways. An’ don’t you forget it.’
Jesse, red-faced, muttered an apology but Siggy only laughed and waved a hand.
Jesse got his second surprise when Siggy told them what to eat. ‘The crab bouillabaisse to start, then the Japanese beef. A special order. Nobody else in the whole country’s got any. Sweet and smooth like your mama’s milk. An’ I’ll chose the wine.’ He grinned at Jesse. ‘Sorry, lad, but I follow the rules. At least most of ’em,’ he said, gesturing at Nubi. ‘But I got a great fresh mango juice for you. At Siggy’s you eat what Siggy tells you.’
‘Any bread?’ asked Matthew.
‘Oh man, have I got bread. Just you wait.’ Then he squinted at Matthew. ‘Two pounds? Nope, three. What they do to you? You’re gainin’ weight.’
‘Yeah, I’m feeling a lot better. What’s for dessert?’
‘For the two of you, the best berry tarts this side of heaven. With crème chantilly. And for Jesse here –’ He paused to reflect. ‘I can see he’s a chocolate man. My own double fudge ice cream, with extra chunks.’
A moan escaped from Jesse’s lips. Siggy laughed again. ‘OK, an extra-large helpin’. I like a man who likes to eat.’
A girl with an alto sax and a skinny kid of maybe eighteen or nineteen rose from a corner table and made their way to the front. Siggy cracked his knuckles and spoke to Finn.
Finn shook his head. ‘Not today.’ He hefted his camera. ‘A few photos, if I may.’
‘Hey, Donna, OK with you if Finn here takes a couple of shots?’ Siggy called out. When she signalled her agreement, he added, ‘But you be careful now, he might make you famous.’
‘Can Nubi stay here?’ Jesse asked.
‘I got a mess of soup bones an’ kidneys just for him,’ Siggy answered. He crouched and eyeballed Nubi, man to man. ‘But you got to be quiet an’ stay in my office, you hear now?’ Rising, Siggy laid his big hand on Jesse’s shoulder for a moment and squeezed. He had powerful fingers. Jesse picked up the paper napkin and began to tear it into strips.
Siggy addressed him shrewdly. ‘I’ll look after him, lad.’
Lips moving in and out, in and out, Siggy combed his beard with his fingers and continued to regard Jesse. The silence at their table seemed to swallow the sounds from the entire room.
Finally Siggy roused himself. ‘Jesse, you need sweetnin’. You got the deepest eyes I seen since the islands. An’ that only ever once.’ He turned to Finn. ‘You look after this boy good. Might be he’s goin’ to do us a few things.’
With a sideways motion of his head Siggy beckoned Nubi, who sprang up and padded after the big man through the swing doors into the kitchen.
Jesse and Matthew listened to the music while Finn photographed. It wasn’t a memorable performance, and Jesse watched Finn more than the musicians. The girl on alto sax played well enough, though not with the haunting quality they’d heard before. Then Siggy brought the food, and Jesse stopped noticing the music altogether.
‘Like it?’ Siggy asked once he’d served the beef and vegetables and tiny buttery noodles.
Jesse searched for the right words to express his sensations. Finally he compromised with, ‘I never knew food could taste this way.’
A grin split Siggy’s face.
‘Who was playing sax just before we came in?’ Matthew asked, while Finn mopped up the last of the sauce with his bread.
‘A new bloke. Wandered in off the street to ask for a chance to play. Got some real sweet blowin’, don’t he?’ Siggy nodded towards a small table half-hidden by a group of older men, serious eaters from the look of them. ‘Just came back in from the alleyway. Picklin’ his lights a sight tarter than my sauerbraten, the way he smokes.’
Jesse followed the direction of Siggy’s gaze. The lad who was sitting alone, hunched over his plate, seemed to sense Jesse’s interest. He raised his head, and they locked eyes. Jesse could feel the spurt of venom cross the space between them, so blinding in intensity that he grasped the table in order not to jerk away. Against, and despite, and contrary to: it was Mick.
When they returned home, the house was still empty. Finn picked up his trumpet and played for half an hour. Unsettled by the encounter with Mick, Jesse stretched out on the sofa and closed his eyes, listening to Finn first run through scales and some exercises, then some old mellow favourites, then a bit of improvisation. He finished up with a couple of blues pieces, perhaps sensing Jesse’s mood. Sarah had misled Jesse. Her dad had a real rapport with his instrument. No one would be knocking on his door with a recording contract, but he was more than just a passable amateur.
Finn laid his trumpet aside and sat down at the piano. He played a few chords, then broke off and asked Jesse about a game of chess.
‘Where did you learn to play so well?’ Jesse asked.
‘Hasn’t Sarah told you? I did a couple of years in jazz before changing to fine arts.’
‘No, in London. That’s where I met Meg. Now how about that game?’
‘OK, fine with me.’
Finn drew white, and they made their opening moves swiftly. It was soon clear that though Finn wasn’t an inexperienced player, he’d have to work hard to hold his own. There was not much chance of his checkmating Jesse. Finn was relieved that they weren’t playing against the clock.
While Finn considered his moves, Jesse found his thoughts wandering, mostly to the evening at Siggy’s. There was something he was missing. How could anyone as crude, as superficial as Mick play the sax like that? It didn’t make sense. With a reasonable amount of practice it was always possible to achieve competence, even a certain gloss. But not the sound Jesse had heard. To play with such passion and sensitivity – such complexity – required not only serious talent, but an intimate knowledge of the darkest caverns of the self, a journey that Jesse had been certain Mick would be incapable of making.